The Case for Protecting Strip Malls from 'Commercial Gentrification'

As our suburbs diversify, the most affordable commercial districts found in such areas (often in strip malls) become an important entry point for immigrants to build their 'American Dream'. Kaid Benfield asks if such opportunities deserve protection.

"There is little question that suburban strip malls represent an unsustainable architecture," writes Benfield. "Totally automobile-dependent, marked by large surface parking lots, and remarkably inefficient at using land, strip malls generate much more pollution and consume much more in the way of resources on a per capita basis than do more walkable, urban shopping districtsSuch urbanist thinkers as Galina Tachieva (Sprawl Repair Manual), June Williamson and Ellen Dunham-Jones (Retrofitting Suburbia) are absolutely correct in urging that, as these malls age and decline, they should be replaced with better, greener forms."

"And yet:  As these properties have declined, so have their rents, making them affordable to small, often entrepreneurial businesses.  Particularly as immigrants have settled in inner suburbs (where many of these fading commercial strips are), businesses owned and patronized by the immigrant population have occupied many of these spaces, in some cases alongside small start-ups owned by longtime community residents as well."

Planners have recognized the adverse impacts of redevelopment on affordable housing and responded with inclusionary zoning laws to help prevent displacement. "But, as far as I know," adds Benfield, "there is no comparable, widely understood ethic to protect small, often minority businesses that are harmed by otherwise beneficial neighborhood change, and I am wondering whether there should be."

Full Story: As we remake suburbs, should we guard against "commercial gentrification"?

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